Remember the first Test between these sides four years ago? South Africa had won the T20I series, Kagiso Rabada had outdone MS Dhoni in an ODI, South Africa had mauled 438 in another, and India took the ultimate gamble going into the Tests. Coach Ravi Shastri admitted later said those were desperate times, and they asked for extreme pitches to restore the confidence of a young team that was being outmuscled at home. The context, the anticipation, India’s coach playing mind games with an announcement that he didn’t mind playing four spinners, South Africa starting off with momentum and confidence, it all made up for a great build-up.
Remember the return tour? South Africa vowing revenge, asking for extreme pitches of their own, India fighting fire with fire, South Africa captain berating his own groundsmen for not being co-operative enough until he got them to co-operate so much that they nearly got the Wanderers banned.
Now? Now the talk is about how South Africa have nothing to lose and all to gain. None of that needle or anticipation exists now as South Africa commence their sixth Test series in India. For a long time, South Africa were the gold standard for touring sides, but now the gulf between the two sides in these conditions is so huge that the absence of the best all-format bowler in the world is not even a big headline.
India have since gone on to become competitive in all conditions, and efficient and intimidating at home. South Africa have lost many of the players that made them the threat they were at that time. Since November 2015, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have taken 256 wickets between them at home at an average of 20.78. Since India lost the home series to England in 2012-13, after which Ashwin-Jadeja became a duo, India have lost just one home Test out of 29.
South Africa, a team in turmoil, a team that has only five survivors from that last tour when they used to be competitive away from home, are not being reticent but are merely stating facts when they say they have nothing to lose. Their one improvement over the last squad is Keshav Maharaj, easily a much better Test spinner than the ones that toured the last time. But he won’t be able to pull off miracles on his own. The South Africans will all have to play out of their skins if they are to win even one Test.
India WWDWL (last five Tests, most recent first)
South Africa LLWWW
In the spotlight
R Ashwin is still an India player. You could be forgiven for thinking he wasn’t: he last played for India last December. Out of limited-overs cricket, he lost his No. 1 spinner title to Jadeja in the West Indies. He will want to have a thing or two to say about it when he finally gets the SG ball in his hand.
It is a matter of mild surprise that Faf du Plessis is still here, and that too as a captain. South Africa’s World Cup exit had strong end-of-era feels to it, which the coming months showed was not unfounded. Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn have retied, AB de Villiers continues to stay retired, coaches are gone, politics continue to remain a big factor. As a captain, du Plessis speaks at press conferences more honestly and openly than many others, and his resignation seemed apparent during the World Cup. It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if a worn-down captain had joined the exodus. Instead, he has chosen the cauldron where he will have to lead a young batting line-up. Over to you, Faf. Show us you’ve still got it.
Apart from Ashwin, making a comeback after 22 months of international absence is wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha. That means Rishabh Pant is out after having scored the first centuries for an India wicketkeeper in England and Australia. The argument is that Saha is more accomplished technically and that will be much more important when it turns at home. Also, Saha has a home Man-of-the-Match award for his batting, so he is no mug on that front either.
Rohit Sharma will begin another attempt at resurrecting a stalled Test career as he converts to an opener.
India 1 Rohit Sharma, 2 Mayank Agarwal, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Hanuma Vihari, 7 Wriddhiman Saha (wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Ravindra Jadeja, 10 Ishant Sharma, 11 Mohammed Shami
Faf du Plessis said South Africa were thinking of playing five bowlers, which might send Quinton de Kock up to No. 6, and Theunis de Bruyn is likely to move up to No. 3.
South Africa (probable XI) 1 Aiden Markram, 2 Dean Elgar, 3 Theunis de Bruyn, 4 Faf du Plessis (capt), 5 Temba Bavuma, 6 Quinton de Kock (wk), 7 Vernon Philander, 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Kagiso Rabada, 10 Lungi Ngidi/Anrich Nortje/Senuran Muthusamy, 11 Dane Piedt
Pitch and conditions
Cricket, say hello to climate change. Well past the monsoon season, it is still raining in many parts of India, devastatingly so, and the east coast is particularly unpredictable. There is forecast for some interruption on each of the days, and the pitch preparation is bound to be affected as well. It won’t, however, turn into the seaming monster that Eden Gardens became when it rained a lot in the lead-up to the Test against Sri Lanka two years ago. Virat Kohli said it was a typical Vizag pitch, which means slow turn, which South Africa won’t like. However, if there is excessive moisture retained, there could be some vicious turn at the start of the Test as evidenced in Bangalore against Australia in 2016-17.
Stats and trivia
Jadeja is two away from becoming the tenth Indian to take 200 Test wickets. If he does it in this, his 44th, Test, Jadeja will be the second-fastest Indian to mark, behind Ashwin’s 37 and ahead of Harbhajan Singh’s 46.
Maharaj needs six more to become the 17th South Africa bowler to take 100 Test wickets.
“The credit goes to the team. We laid down a vision in 2015 that we were going to be flexible. We were going to choose sides according to the conditions because we wanted results, we wanted to be successful, we wanted to be at the top of the world. If the team hadn’t bought into it, it can become difficult to play with the intent we have played with.”
Virat Kohli is happy with where the team is headed since he took over full time in 2015
“It’s really exciting. It’s something fresh, it’s something new. We have played a lot of Test cricket, but this is the first of its kind. Playing India in any conditions is tough, playing them at home is tougher, so it is a nice challenge, but I am more excited about the World Test Championship. Right now we don’t know if it is a good or a bad system. It is something you have to go through yourself.”
Faf du Plessis loves the extra context